The three secrets to meditation and mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness can offer great benefits but many people fail to engage with the practice, here are some simple rules.

The three secrets to meditation and mindfulness
The three secrets to meditation and mindfulness

Looking for the three secrets to meaningful meditation?

Traditionally obtaining long lasting results from meditation practice can take years. Famously H.H. the Dalai Lama advised Buddhist meditators to assess their progress over a five year period. This kind of long term investment challenges modern notions of what self transformation might be and how quickly individuals should expect to reach their meditation goals. As such both new and experienced meditators are increasingly looking for help, advice and tips to allow them to maximize the time they spend in meditation. As an experienced meditation practitioner, teacher and now researcher, I have reviewed much of the published evidence to offer you the three secrets of meditation.

The three secrets to successful meditation and mindfulness

  • Do some research – understand your goals, find a reliable method and teacher.
  • Start – unless you start you won’t get anywhere.
  • Keep going – perseverance is probably the most important quality needed in a meditator.

buddha-buddhism-statue-religion-46177.jpegAt first sight it might seem that these three ‘secrets’ are  general and not really that helpful, however just pause for a moment to consider them. From my own experience the single biggest mistake people make when they decide that they want to meditate is to not consider fully what they want to achieve and which approach would be most useful. Generally speaking meditation can have a number of short term transient benefits, for example an improvement in self reported well being. But how long do you have to meditate to get the short term benefits and what comes after the initial ‘feel good’ phase? I’m not suggesting for a moment that meditators need to access scientific studies, but you should have some general ideas of what you want to learn and who should be teaching you.

Traditionally the biggest meditation mistake is not to start, the benefits of regular meditation practice are so great that not to at least try it a great pity in my opinion. Traditional forms of meditation have been shown to help with everything from smoking cessation to lowering the risks of developing dementia. Once the basic skill of ‘sitting’ has been acquired a whole range of methods become instantly more accessible. Consider that ‘not starting’ doesn’t mean simply never to have tried meditation but also not to have given it a chance. It can take a few sessions to achieve any real benefit, particularly is your mind is typically ‘busy’ and you find it difficult to put down the worries of your day to day life. Many people feel the benefits of meditation after the first lesson, it might take others a bit longer. A good teacher will be able to help if you are unsure about your progress. A simple analogy is that of learning to drive a car, many people pause driving lessons after a few hours training, disheartened by the challenge. There is an initial ‘biting point’ for people at the start of the meditation journey, if you haven’t reached it you haven’t really started to meditate.

Most meditators who practice two or three times a week can gain great benefit. They may work to change negative and limiting behaviours, address mental or physical health problems, feel a bit more comfortable in their own skin and take more control over their thought processes. But progress fluctuates and if you meditate for any length of time sooner or later you will feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as you would like. This impatience is natural and simply reflects resistance to change, many people put their meditation on hold at this point. Sometimes people do return to the practice but this might be many months or even years later. Consider that ultimately regular meditation leads to functional and structural change in the brain, if you don’t maintain the behaviour linked to the change, neural connections may weaken and you can go back to square one. It might feel like you have all that previous meditation related change still inside you but this probably isn’t the case. If it feels like you need a break, a change of practice might be more beneficial than stopping altogether. It should always be stressed that if you think a meditation method is having a negative impact on you, stop it immediately.

With each specific form of meditation a skillful teacher or experienced student will be able to offer much more advice, but it depends on your own experience and the nature of the practice. For example some traditional practices are more suited to the morning or evening or are not suitable for beginners or people taking medication. How you sit, breath and when you last ate might influence the quality of your practice. Consider that most traditional meditation methods have been used by tens of millions of people for hundreds of years so there is a lot of useful information out there.

 

(Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on on Pexels.com)

Canterbury meditation classes for the over 40s

Meditation classes in Canterbury

Canterbury meditation
Meditation for the over 40s in Canterbury

A unique opportunity for meditation and mindfulness in Kent

Cutting edge meditation comes to Canterbury, book a class!

Mind training has been undergoing a revolution over the last decade with different forms of meditation and mindfulness being offered in diverse settings including, schools, prisons and the workplace. However one of the groups least catered for in terms of meditation is adults over 40, even though this age range might get the greatest benefits from regular meditation practice. Scientific research has demonstrated a relationship between regular meditation and improved brain (cognitive) functions such as memory and attention. The first visible signs of cognitive decline tend to be visible during our 40s, and their deterioration can continue for the rest of our lives, potentiality leading to increased cognitive impairment and eventually dementia. However when practiced regularly meditation is linked to maintaining a younger, healthier brain.

“Cognitive decline begins at about the age of 30 perhaps earlier, most people will have visible signs of an ageing brain in their 40s, this decline can ultimately develop into mild cognitive impairment and even dementia!”

The evidence indicates that we start to experience cognitive decline in our late 20s to early 30s, this is described as brain aging and it is progressive process. Today neuroscience has shown that the rate at which a brain ages is connected to our environment as well as our genes. Lifestyle choice such as if we smoke, what we eat and how we live our lives can have a dramatic impact on brain health and the speed of cognitive decline. Recent research demonstrated that regular meditators had brains seven years younger than non meditators at age 50. Neuroscience research has also confirmed that new brain structure can be created throughout our lives.

Trained neuroscientist and meditation researcher Stephen Gene Morris is opening a Brain Renewal Meditation (BRM) class in Canterbury. BRM combines the latest scientific research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience with established meditation

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Latest research, reliable methods, expert knowledge

methods. BRM is based on traditional compassion mind training and mindfulness meditation. The practice is suitable for any adult, requires no prior knowledge or meditation experience. BRM is appropriate for anyone over the age of 18 but it has been created specifically for people of 40 and older.  The meditation is primarily a compassion based practice which means the method is linked to the aspiration to reduce suffering for oneself and other. As Stephen explains “compassion is a reliable method of brain training, it’s been around for a long time, in its BRM configuration it uses the most useful elements of mindfulness and nondual meditation”.

“BRM engages the mechanisms for self interests and wider empathy networks, it promotes brain health and is linked to increasing a positive and engaged outlook.”

To join a class or find out more visit the Brain Renewal Meditation website.

Overcoming obstacles to meditation; practicing in prison

Obstacles to meditation include resistance to start and a failure to continue. Perhaps meditation groups in prison can offer us some inspiration?

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Ongoing institutional meditation programmes demonstrate the ability of Buddhist approaches to benefit a wide range of people, even in challenging situations. Compassion Works for All is involved in activities including  the running of meditation groups in US prisons.

Cliff Plegg has been volunteering for Compassion Works for a year, his primary role is leading a monthly meditation class in an Arkansas correctional institution. In addition to teaching meditation, Cliff is also compiling a list of yoga and meditation resources that prisoners can engage with when they are released. Plegg has overcome a plenty of challenges in his own life having been diagnosed with avascular necrosis. This pattern of someone overcoming personal obstacles, then moving on to trying to help others is a pretty common theme in meditators.

So what does a volunteer meditation programme in an Arkansas prison have to do with UK meditators? Meditation is taught by different organizations in prisons around the world, some more well known than others. The universal appeal of meditation transcends geographical and cultural barriers. Meditation has an appeal which inspires both teachers and practitioners from all parts of society. Unfortunately the challenge isn’t only getting people to start a practice, but also to continue it to the point where it has a lasting effect. This ‘biting point’ of meditation is the moment at which the benefits become apparent at the level of personal experience. When someone knows something is delivering a significant and sustainable benefit,  it becomes much easier to make an informed choice regarding the value of the resource.

Just one session can be enough to get a sense that meditation is a useful or interesting activity, this however may not the ‘biting point’. Only when the student understands, (however fleetingly), that they have some control over their experience of the world can the meditator pass to an intermediate level of practice. I am a great believer that all meditation is useful on some level, most of my own students have tried meditation of some informal kind before they engage with a more regular practice. But such is the hype of the meditation ‘industry’ that a casual observer might imagine that sitting on a cushion once or twice may be sufficient to unravel years of negative thinking.

The common factor between meditators  in Canterbury, Rochester or Arkansas is that we all see the potential of meditation to offer us solutions for our day to day problems. Once that important first step is taken, the next goal is to establish a practice, to continue to the point of realizing what the method is able to do. I don’t take a prescriptive approach to meditation, students must want to do it and feel it’s right for them. My advice has been the same for at least a decade, if you want to meditate, find a reliable teacher (or guidance), use an authentic and appropriate method and put in the necessary effort.

I offer good wishes to Cliff Plegg and all meditators, particularly those currently incarcerated.

Is diet a key factor in meditation?

Biome and meditation, what you eat and drink may be exerting a strong influence on your meditation practice.

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One of the biggest problems in researching the benefits of meditation is understanding the potential confounds. In essence, what factors other than the meditation method itself exert an influence on subsequent behavior. Lifestyle questionnaires normally reveal significant differences between long standing meditators and the wider population. Given the range and diversity of meditation methods available, generalisations are quite difficult . However I’d expect experienced meditators from the Buddhist schools to eat less meat and take fewer intoxicants than the wider population. There are also more subtle variations. For example, in some approaches, meditators may drink alcohol yet abstain from scallions (the food group that includes garlic and onions). Another group might have a tendency to eat meat but not consume any food after their lunchtime meal. So does this matter and if so why?

The emerging research of the human microbiota (microorganisms living in or on humans, primarily in the gut) is demonstrating an increasingly close connection between gut bacteria, health and wellbeing. This is a dynamic area of enquiry but studies have implicated gut bacteria in conditions as diverse as obesity, migraine and depression. Typically science demonstrates a correlation between gut bacteria and a particular condition. For example people that suffer from migraines tend to have different bacteria when compared to people not suffering from migraines.

The key message is that meditators should think about what they eat if they want to maximize the benefits of their meditation practice.

The early signs are that the human biome may be more influential than causal in health. Meaning that your gut flora makes it more or less likely that you will or won’t suffer from a particular condition. Our gut flora is established at birth but it is subject to changes throughout our lives. We introduce bacteria from a range of sources, primarily from what we eat and drink. So if, for example, it was discovered that bacteria associated with eating chicken was linked to depression  (which it isn’t as far as I know).  It would have implications for meditators working with depression.

All this won’t come as any great surprise to long standing practitioners, many of the people in my own meditation circle already think about what they eat quite carefully. The influence of the biome on human health shouldn’t really make any difference to meditators. Reliable meditation is likely to have an effect in every instance, although your practice might be strongly influenced by what you eat.

Meditation for better health: you are the answer

Meditation for better health, how to build a successful meditation practice.

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The evidence we highlight on these pages is generally of the empirical kind, contemporary scientific investigations, surveys and experimental research projects. This isn’t the only ‘proof’ to which we have access, but it is often what a significant part of our audience finds most compelling. Not that I see my role as to ‘compel’ or convince anyone to meditate, however discussions about the benefits of meditation or mindfulness can be supported by hard data. But over time personal experience has been more influential than sensationalized news headlines.

Meditation is one of the great human resources, it’s able to transcend a wide range of health and well-being problems, most people can engage with it, it’s easy to start, exists in multiple formats, crosses most cultural boundaries and once learned is a lifelong tool and support.

Stephen Gene Morris

Credible first hand accounts, traditional explanations and contemporary science have all been useful guides on my own path. Unfortunately they don’t deliver the motivation to carry on, this generally comes from within. In the early stages of my meditation development there were difficulties, the first few sessions felt OK but there was no real indication of the benefits that were going to unfold. Looking back I felt somewhat ambivalent, I was starting to get a sense of proportion but there was no sign of the great and positive changes to come. The support of my fellow meditators and meditation teacher were helpful at these early stages, but the commitment to practice had to come from me.

Building a long term meditation practice is filled with many obstacles, there are reasons why they occur and strategies to overcome them (these depend on what your practice is). But progress is always marked by your own determination to continue. The most important obstacles tend to be the first you encounter, typically when you start. Most beginners will have little to compare the experience of ‘sitting’ with. And so the initial discomforts and struggles with discursiveness tend to put many students off before they ever get going.

Unfortunately several of the people that I have taught to meditate didn’t persevere to the point where their health and wellbeing improved. I don’t have reliable records but I’d estimate the majority of people that meditate for ten consecutive weeks go on to develop a practice. They may not maintain it, but they have started on the path to meditation. Given that the evidence for the health benefits of meditation with,  anxiety, depression, and stress are now overwhelming, there’s little logical excuse not to start, and even less not to persevere. But scientific evidence doesn’t amount to much when pitted against the human ego. Traditional Buddhist meditation rests on the idea of avoiding the extremes and to not follow the whim of every transient thought. Without being able to push through the basic resistance1 and to discipline your mind, meditation cannot be successful.

Meditation is a method for self-transformation, the direction and depth of that transformation depends on the meditator. Overcoming obstacles is a natural part of the dynamic nature of self-transformation. If you decide you’d like to meditate consider that you are the solution to your own problems, the meditation method simply offers a context within which you make it happen.

 

Footnote

1 While most reliable forms of meditation are unlikely to create serious physical or psychological discomfort. If you experience any significant problems consult a qualified and experienced teacher. The resistance referred to in this article are issues linked to distraction, poor concentration and an unwillingness to ‘sit’.

Spirituality leads to better health?

Is spirituality a factor in better health? If so does this have implications for meditation?

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In a recent article William Sears wrote about the health benefits of being on the spiritual path. He contends that religious belief  may be linked to a longer and happier life as well as good all round general health. The idea is probably supported by the experience of many traditional meditation teachers. This has generally been my own experience, people that commit to meditation in a Buddhist context seem to achieve an improvement in the quality of their lives; notwithstanding their spiritual goals.

There is a particular paradox at work here, improved conditions for oneself being linked to a lessening of the attention on oneself. Most people that I have meditated with appeared to have come to meditation to achieve a particular goal, typically linked to health and wellbeing. In this regard as I become more experienced, the less attention I pay to the reasons why someone wants to meditate. I would of course hesitate to teach meditation to someone who explicitly wanted to pursue a negative goal, this fortunately  has never happened. But the point is that an authentic meditation method is forgiving of a degree of selfishness.  Experience has taught me that an openness to the method is the key to reaping the health and wellbeing rewards of meditation practice.

So I would generally advise people who seek the benefits of meditation to simply practice. Agonizing over the authenticity of one’s own meditation is much less productive that just meditating. Clearly if someone is seeking to enter a spiritual path a degree of understanding is necessary. But if you simply want to feel better, most of your energy should be directed towards mind not ego.

Typically a meditation master discourages students from commenting on other people’s meditation achievements. This is useful in itself but it almost certainly helps to stop self examination, as well as as the critiquing of the people you might be meditating with. As a meditation scientist I’m inclined to think this is linked to the balancing of our intrinsic and extrinsic networks. However much more importantly it’s simple to test for yourself. Try to make a point of criticizing others less for a week, see if this has an effect on your own self criticism.

Meditation for health and wellbeing are positive goals to maintain, meditating for the health and wellbeing of yourself and others may be a more effective method.

 

Can mindfulness increase selfishness?

Is there a relationship between selfishness and mindfulness?

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A warning from the Royal College of Psychiatrists appeared in the  media over the last two weeks.  The College’s spirituality special interest group chair, Dr Alison Gray, has suggested that solitary mindfulness practice could lead to a tendency towards selfishness.

The idea that mindfulness or meditation could support the creation of negative emotions or increasing instability is a perfectly sensible observation to make. However it perhaps reveals how little western science really known about meditation. Two of the most important safeguards for traditional meditators are:

  1. Beginners are typically taught by a knowledgeable teacher
  2. Learning meditation usually takes place in an ethical framework

At one extreme, a knowledgeable teacher is someone who has meditated for thousands of hours, has accomplished the practice they teach and have many years of experience of teaching. As a starting point the student will be taught, for at least part of the time by the teacher able to offer guidance and training. If the student demonstrates a tendency to selfishness, or sentimentality the teacher will offer appropriate advice.

Secondly by meditating within an ethical framework students are given protection from a range of potential adverse reactions to working with mind, such as selfishness. Whilst traditional meditators are associated with compassion, this isn’t simply an aspirational aspect of practice, it’s also to keep the student rooted on a meaningful path. In fact there are some traditional methods for which a compassionate view is an essential per-requisite.

The idea that meditation is beneficial per se’ is at best naive’. There are accounts of mindfulness being taught to combat troops and executives working in banking and finance.  What is the likely effect of mindfulness in these situations?

However there is also a technical aspect to consider. I would expect that an excessive internal or external focus to lead to the development of neural networks to reflect this focus. I have known many selfless meditators who retained very high levels of compassion after extended periods meditating alone. I am satisfied that meditating alone in itself does not create selfishness.  I am minded to think that they key is in the motivation of the meditator. In a healthy adult meditator, the motivation behind the meditation practice is likely to be strengthened by the process of meditation. It is perhaps in this regard that experienced teachers  refer to compassion as a ‘protection’ to the meditator.